In my last post, I shared news from a challenging project: the crew was struggling to show up for work. By this I mean both physically showing up or being present but simply not engaged in the work. Not sure what to do, I asked a good friend, Shawn Hawkins, who has over 20 years of experience in the US Army leading soldiers and who now runs his own trucking and construction business, Hamma Down Enterprises. He suggested I assign the crew MORE responsibility by selecting a couple squad leaders, assigning them a small crew of their own, giving them goals and having them report to me on their progress, where they need help, etc. In short, I was to teach and assist these new squad leaders and enable them to be successful. I was to lead them so they could lead others.
I took my friend’s advice and it’s been about a month since I selected the squad leaders. I am happy to report there have been positive outcomes using this new approach:
The new squad leaders were selected because of their hard work and positive attitude but prior, they didn’t think anyone had noticed. Being selected as a squad leader affirmed my confidence in them and improved their engagement and morale.
Now, having a formal chance to make a direct impact on the work, the new squad leaders came “out of their shell” to share new ideas they were hesitant to share before.
Those in the crew who are potential leaders, but not quite ready yet, saw that hard work and positive attitude do get rewarded. They now have a personal goal to strive for: to be selected as a squad leader.
Production has increased because the leader and their crew have ownership and accountability for the work–they want to demonstrate they can be successful.
Having squad leaders serve as “middle managers” frees up the Superintendent to move from minute to minute supervision to planning work days in advance and clearing hurdles for the crews.
However, not all changes have been positive. Wtching the new squad leaders work into their roles, I've been reminded of a few lessons:
It takes time to develop into a leader. Just because I assign someone a title, doesn’t mean they will instantly perform the new job. It’s a new role and we all need practice.
The squad leader and crew need to have meaningful work in front of them to practice their working relationship. Without such work to do, we all lose focus. For example, we had some difficult conditions that took time to navigate and caused delays in the work for the crew. As the senior person on the project, I need to clear out problems at my level so that those who follow me can perform the tasks under their control and achieve their goals.
Squad leaders need to be reminded that it’s OK to delegate tasks. For example, when an unforeseen problem popped up during their work, some squad leaders jumped in (literally into the trench) to fix the problem which left their crew standing around waiting for direction. While I admire the work ethic, this leaves the remainder of team waiting, without work, while one person completes just one task. A better idea would have been to delegate this task to a crew member so the squad leader could get planning for their next operations.
It is difficult for a crew team member to become the crew’s leader without feeling uneasy about giving direction to former “friends." I need to coach and encourage my new leaders not to be afraid to give direction. Soon enough, you will lose the respect of your “friends” if you don’t take charge. It also helps if I remind the crew that it is their job to follow direction and assist their leader in performing the work.
Soft skills really matter. While the squad leaders know the technical aspects of their work, if they can’t earn their respect of their crew, the crew simply won’t function to its potential. Again, this is where I will spend more time coaching.
I encountered a broader lesson that is worth sharing. Being a leader isn’t for everyone – and that’s OK. At the time we initiated this new approach to running the job site, I had a couple crew members step up and ask to be made a squad leader. While I sensed they might not be right for the job, I certainly admired their courage and gave them a chance. It didn’t take but a couple weeks for these same people to retract into their former roles-but they did so without any remorse and without me “demoting” them. I think if anything, they’ve learned that being the leader isn’t easy and it’s just not a role they are comfortable with. For a few of these folks, I’ve since found a way to give them a leadership role without the stress of managing their own crew. For example, one person has the job of performing a site walk-around at the end of each day to make sure the site is clean and secure before the crew is permitted to leave. Another will be doing daily equipment inspection checklists. Another will be assigned new employees to orient them to the project. In all cases, they have the authority to make decisions to forward their assigned role.
While conditions are improving as a result of this new approach it is important to remember that no project team is perfect. While it is far more rewarding to coach and watch new squad leaders grow into their new role, there is a parallel path that leaders, especially those in the senior ranks, must confront: terminating employees. If an employee is holding back progress because of a poor attitude, work ethic, or attendance record, they will be costing the project more than the value they provide. The folks who can’t or won’t respect their new leaders, follow direction, and perform at the level the project needs to be successful are at risk of losing their job. After careful review of each instance, if a termination is needed to enable success of the broader crew and the project, then it might be the right time to make that difficult decision. Leadership is about making decisions and few are easy.
In summary, production is improving, albeit slowly. I have seen sparks among those crew members who want to be on the job, want the greater responsibility and are willing to stick their neck out a bit and give leadership a try. If I can fan those sparks into flames among the crew personnel, we’ll be rolling.
Mission Critical Operations (MC-Ops) is a team of senior construction managers who help small contractors stop losing money on their projects. Our customers do great work but they need help running their projects. We step-in to get control of and improve both field and administrative operations. We help our contractors build the job right the first time, stay on schedule and get paid for contract work as well as changes, delays and unforeseen conditions that are forced upon them by others.
MC-Ops is often retained when their customers are short staffed in headcount and/or skill sets and when their projects are falling behind in schedule, quality and cost performance. MC-Ops provides its customers full-time support at the cost of a part-time employee.